Strategic Approaches to Sexual Assault Kit Evidence: Action Research  (2014)

Researcher(s):

Project Categories

PI: Noël Bridget Busch-Armendariz, PhD, LMSW, MPA

IDVSA research team: Sapana Donde, Ph.D;

Duration: 2011-2013

The purpose of this project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, is to better understand the underlying factors that contribute to the high number of sexual assault kits (SAKs) that have not been submitted to the crime lab for analysis. The project will utilize action research techniques such as interactive inquire process by conducting focus groups and discussions with victims, victim advocates, and other related professionals who are knowledgeable about the process of collecting and testing sexual assault kits. Findings will be used to build, inform, and shape a plan of action to alleviate these untested sexual assault kits.

The Institute of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) is working with community partners including Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab, Houston Area Women’s Center, Sam Houston University’s Criminal Justice research unit, SANE nurses, and others to collaboratively identify the problem and recommend a detailed response to decrease and eventually eliminate the issue of untested sexual assault kits. The role of IDVSA includes facilitating partnership meetings as well as planning and conducting interviews with victims, victim advocates, and other professionals to provide an understanding of the problem.

In Phase II (2012-2013) of the project, IDVSA will utilize action research techniques such as interactive inquire process by conducting focus groups and discussions with law enforcement, crime lab specialists, and other stakeholders who are knowledgeable about the process of testing sexual assault kits. During the early part of Phase II we interviewed victims that provided a SANE exam including those that are moving forward with testing, those that are moving forward with adjudication, and those cases that have been decided to either remain untested or are unable to move forward in the criminal justice system. Victim notification strategies were discussed and vetted through both victims and victim advocates.

As we move in the next stages of Phase II, we will develop an evaluation tool to track the effectiveness of a model that aims to increase victim engagement with the criminal justice system. To do so, we will conduct an evaluation of a new victim liaison model and efforts to enhance networks of support for victims through collaboration with HPD Victim Services and HAWC victim advocates. In addition, we will create a victim notification “how-to” guide to be used by other jurisdictions about trauma-informed protocols around victim notification.

We are reviewing 50 SAK cases (from the project’s larger sample of 500) to better understand and inform policies and procedures related to SAK evidence collection, screening, and testing. An economic analysis of the costs associated with all aspects and implications of testing unrequested, backlogged SAKs will also be performed, so as to assist other jurisdictions with determining what resources may be needed to effectively reduce their backlogs. IDVSA will assist project partners with project efforts aimed at improving and enhancing the training and specialization of law enforcement (e.g., responding officers and investigators).

Project Questions  (Phases I & II)

  • How has the SAK Task Force assigned high, medium, and low priority to sexual assault kits when considering how to triage SAK testing?
  • What do victims and victim advocates say about the criminal justice process of moving SAKs from an untested to tested status?
  • When and how should sexual assault victims be notified during this process?
  • How are different methods of notifications perceived by victims?
  • What types of follow up services are effective for victims who have been recently notified of re-opened cases?
  • What is the access to those services by victims? What else is needed?
  • What are best practices for victim notification in “cold cases” of sexual assault?
  • What are special considerations when implementing victim notification strategies?
  • What evaluation tools would help assess the effectiveness of a victim liaison model?
  • What changes in policies and practices are needed to improve systems of communications and operations related to SAK evidence collection, screening, and testing?
  • What are the costs to testing backlogged SAKs, both in terms of actual screening and testing of kits as well as investigative case follow up and victim advocacy?

Sponsor: City of Houston Police Dept / U.S. Department of Justice – Office of Justice Programs (prime award: 2011-DN-BX-002)